Living in Incarnational Reality
By Mary Carrington
Incarnational reality is a concept that permeates Leanne Payne’s teaching and writing. By incarnational reality, Leanne means the presence of God both with us and within us. Through incarnational reality, in all of its aspects, we share in the life of Christ and undertake a glorious adventure. We relate to God because we are linked with Him through incarnational reality. We can forgive the unforgivable because of Christ’s incarnational reality in us reaching out in love to those who have offended us. God’s grace descends into us and transforms us into His image through His incarnational reality dwelling within us. As we dwell in incarnational reality, we also partake of holiness, one of the primary attributes of God. Our intuitive minds permeated by incarnational reality receive words, thoughts, and visions directly from the Father. Christ’s incarnational reality comes to touch and heal us through the sacraments. Like C. S. Lewis and Leanne we touch Jesus, and His incarnational reality revitalizes us in the deepest recesses of our being.
What Is Incarnational Reality?
Christianity is incarnational. It can never be understood outside of this context (Incarnational Reality: A Study of the Holy Spirit in Man).
Incarnational reality is a difficult term to define because it speaks of the ultimate reality, God Himself, with us and within us, and who can adequately describe God? Incarnational reality can never be acquired by the mere accumulation of theological knowledge about God. An understanding of incarnational reality, prayerfully digested, can be brought into one’s personal walk with God. We come to know incarnational reality by union with Him. We experience the living reality of one of Leanne Payne’s beloved expressions, “Another is in me.”
Leanne, like C. S. Lewis, points us towards “incarnational reality” or the “reality of God present in and through His creation,” (Real Presence, p. 18), which Leanne also refers to as “ultimate reality.” Both Lewis and Leanne recovered the “vision of an immanent God – a God who indwells His people” (Real Presence, p. 22). However, the Christ-life in Christians is not something mental or moral according to Lewis. Christians are not copying Christ or thinking about Him, but Christ is operating through them: “. . . the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts – that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body” (Mere Christianity, chapter 10).
While praying about the overwhelming task of writing about incarnational reality, Leanne experienced an unusual vision. She saw Christ’s face “aglow and framed by the richest of sun-baked hues.” This was, she explains, a vision of the incarnation, “the Uncreated shining through the created.” It was God shining through the face of Jesus His Son, both human and divine (Healing Presence, p. 10). In a similar way, God shines through our human faces when we dwell in incarnational reality.
Christ through His Holy Spirit not only indwells our physical bodies but descends “into our deepest beings and lives.” As Leanne writes, He hallows and enlightens the will, the intellect, the imagination and the feeling and sensory beings (Healing Presence, p. 11).
Living without incarnational reality, when our true center is not in union with Christ, we do not listen to God and receive His guidance and wisdom or collaborate with His Holy Spirit. Our minds, as Leanne writes, “developed apart from an active participation in the Holy Spirit (incarnational reality)” yield “a rationalism that cannot receive spiritual wisdom” (Real Presence, p. 52). We do not then live in the “fullness of Christ” and His glorious kingdom. We live as less than we are created to be.
Lewis illustrates the fullness of incarnational reality in the character of Sarah of Golders Green in his novel The Great Divorce. Sarah, as Leanne writes, is “fully infused with the divine life” (Real Presence, p. 45). “Love shone not from her face only, but from all her limbs, as if it were some liquid in which she had just been bathing” (The Great Divorce, pp. 109-110). She is radiating joy and happiness, inviting others to dance with her in the great joy of incarnational reality shining through her.
Incarnational Reality and Our Relationship with God
We are linked to ultimate reality by the person of the Holy Spirit. We do not, however, come to know ultimate reality or incarnational reality by theological or abstract ideas about ultimate reality but by union with ultimate reality – “by establishing a personal relationship between God and man” (Real Presence, p. 31) such as the relationship between Abraham and God in Genesis.
When we lack an understanding of incarnational reality mediated by the Holy Spirit, our own rationalizations or ideas about God are substituted for the reality of the living presence of God. We replace the living presence (incarnational reality) with theological ideas about incarnational reality. As John A. Mackay writes, “belief in the doctrine of the incarnation becomes a substitute for belief in the incarnate God” (A Preface to Christian Theology, pp. 123-124). Oxford theologian Alister McGrath in his book on the incarnation writes that theology at its worst “conveys the deeply misleading idea that Christianity is simply about ideas, and that spiritual growth is measured in the accumulation of those ideas” (Incarnation, p. 50).
However, our hearts are thirsty, as Lewis’s was, for a personal relationship with God and for the fullness of incarnational reality. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis writes about Jill’s encounter with Aslan.
‘I daren’t come and drink,’ said Jill.
‘Then you will die of thirst,’ said the Lion.
‘Oh dear,’ said Jill, coming another step nearer.
‘I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.’
‘There is no other stream,’ said the Lion.
(Lewis, The Silver Chair, chapter 2)
As Leanne writes, “There is only one stream, one link with God” (Incarnational Reality: A Study of the Holy Spirit in Man, p. 9) through His Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit we encounter the living, transforming presence of God that leads us into true freedom.
While ministering at a Ministries of Pastoral Care (MPC) conference, I saw how a rational, heady experience of Christianity can lead to much anger and frustration in the lives of those who struggle with the worst of emotional wounds and grievous sins. One conference participant, who admitted that he was more interested in theological ideas about God than experiencing His incarnational reality, had become very angry with God in his suffering. He had suffered the worst types of physical and sexual abuse in his family as a little boy. He blamed his condition on God rather than seeking ways to drink from the stream and encounter the incarnational reality in a church or a community group filled with the presence of God, such as a Living Waters group, where he could receive further healing for his wounds.
Incarnational Reality and Forgiveness
Our union with God and His incarnational reality descending into us enables us to forgive even in the most difficult situations. Leanne recounts how she found herself “in the midst of a temptation to hate” a person who had envied and slandered her, and she realized how living with that hate could cause a person to kill another. She cried out to the Lord to enable her to forgive and heard the audible voice of what she understood to be God the Father speak, “to me to live is Christ.” The meaning of these words of Paul then became clear to her; she needed to allow Christ to live in her and love even her worst enemy through her (Listening Prayer, p. 179). She was able to forgive as she became very aware of Christ in her. Leanne writes, “from that center where He and I were mysteriously one, forgiveness was extended” to her enemy (Healing Presence, p. 102).
Forgiveness will often be accompanied by a divine infusion of God’s incarnational love. As a young woman, I suffered many abuses from men. This hardened my heart towards men, and I believed that there was no such thing as a holy man, that every man was by nature perverse and unholy. About a month before I attended a Pastoral Care Ministries (PCM) school, memories of past abuse began to surface in my heart. With God’s help and grace, I chose to forgive each abuser as his face appeared in my memories. While attending that PCM school and during the prayer for the healing of misogyny, Leanne asked the men to turn and bless the women who were present. It was in that moment that the wall of bitterness melted in my heart, and I could see man as God made him to be. I looked up to the man standing next to me and with tears in my eyes commented that he was the most beautiful man in God’s creation. God’s love for men poured through me and transformed me as the Holy Spirit opened my heart to receive truth. The grace of God enveloped me, and His healing incarnational presence descended into me, enabling me to forgive my abusers.
Incarnational Reality and Transformation
Through the new birth and the baptism of the Holy Spirit humans are incarnate or as Leanne writes, “in-gifted, in-graced, in-godded” (Healing Presence, p. 96). As “in-graced” human beings we continually receive “infusions of grace” by the Holy Spirit as we yield to Him. The grace-filled journey enables us to be transformed into the image and likeness of God, experiencing His infusions of grace and strength as we undergo this transformation. As Lewis writes, “Our reality is so much from His reality as He moment by moment, projects into us” (Letters to Malcolm, p. 71).
Leanne illustrates the reality of God’s grace being projected into us with an example from Prince Caspian (Incarnational Reality: A Study of the Holy Spirit in Man, p. 2). The children were lost on the trail and in terrible danger from their enemies when Lucy saw Aslan beckon to her. Lucy ran to Aslan and buried her head in his mane. “But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. ‘Now you are a lioness. . . . and all Narnia will be renewed'” (Prince Caspian, p. 135).
Lucy and the other children are “in-gifted, in-graced, in-godded” as they receive infusions of grace from Aslan. Similarly, God’s incredible “lion-strength” flows into us in very difficult circumstances. Recently I was caring for a sick husband who had to be taken to the ER for treatment for kidney stones. After spending an emotionally wrenching day at the hospital, I confessed to the Lord that I was feeling overwhelmed with the trauma. A friend texted me a message about Mary receiving strength at the cross when watching Jesus die. As I read the words, God’s strength poured into me, and I realized that He had more than enough strength to carry me though. As I began to think of this strength, I almost leaped for joy. My husband had to undergo two kidney stone surgeries, but through it all I was very much aware of God’s grace and strength upholding me. The type of strength that flowed into my soul was not a false strength or a stoic strength emanating from my own self-control but an inner strength or, as Josef Pieper writes, a “mystic fortitude” (The Four Cardinal Virtues, p. 140) rooted in surrendering to the strength and power of an incarnational God. We can pray for God’s strength as Leanne often did by praying with scriptures such as Isaiah 12:2-6 (NIV):
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid.
The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
Incarnational reality and its transformational character are also described in the hymns of Symeon the New Theologian (AD 949-1022), who stressed the experiential reality of his relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. “He makes us utterly real” in His image. An earlier translation of Symeon’s hymn in Divine Eros emphasizes how we can be transformed such that we reflect and absorb God’s glory and beauty. “He shall make all shameful things decent (1 Cor. 12:23-24); by the beauty of his divinity and by his glory He shall adorn them.” For instance, when we pray for some whose imaginations have been defiled by pornographic and violent images, we see the Holy Spirit filling their imagination with images of glory and divine beauty. His Holy Presence casts out the darkness and refills, reshapes the previously stained imaginations to become galleries of divine and holy beauty.
Symeon’s hymn radiates with the incarnational understanding of Christ’s life within us.
We awaken in Christ’s body
As Christ awakens our bodies,
And my poor hand is Christ, He enters
My foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(For God is indivisibly
Whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?-Then
Open your heart to Him
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body, all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
As He makes us, utterly real,
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably
Damaged, is in Him transformed
And recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His life.
We awaken as the Beloved
In every last part of our body.
(St. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 15, Lines 140-190, translated by Donald Sheenan, Greek Orthodox Deacon)
If we yield to Christ through His Holy Spirit, He will transform us. Healing prayer often requires a step of yielding our wills to Christ. I had to yield the pain of my family’s rejection to Christ and forgive my family for rejecting me. As I forgave, the darkness of rejection left me, and a tremendous heavenly transcendent joy poured into me. I have experienced many other healings where the darkness has been greater, but Christ’s healing has always poured into my soul. As St. Symeon writes, “everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in Him transformed.”
Incarnational Reality and Holiness
As Leanne writes in Listening Prayer, holiness is incarnational. “We tip over into evil the moment we forget to confess the tyrant within and acknowledge that our holiness is at every moment Another’s: it is incarnational” (Listening Prayer, chapter 10). Sanctification, as Oswald Chambers writes, is “Christ in you.” Chambers explains, “Sanctification means the impartation of the qualities of Jesus Christ. It is His patience, His love, His holiness . . .” Holiness then is imparted to us as we walk with the Lord participating in His divine life.
When people repent and renounce false gods such as the gods of sexual promiscuity and other idols, holiness is set in. When we worship and confess our sins as in MPC conferences, holiness descends. Those who have felt degraded and filthy experience the cleansing of holiness. A holy light descends such as it did on Mt. Tabor during the Transfiguration when Jesus’ face shone like the sun or when Stephen’s face shone like an angel (Acts 6:15).
When the quality of holiness is imparted to us, it allows us to quickly discern the unholy and flee from its snares. My husband and I prayed with a young man, Joe, with a severe pornographic addiction. Joe was delighted when he experienced for the first time in his life how this new sense of the holy kept him from turning to pornography. His background in a legalistic church had not able to prevent his descent into pornography. Now, however, his heart transformed with a new sense of and love for the holy, Joe has an inbuilt resistance to the unholy.
Incarnational Reality and the Intuitive Mind
Leanne in chapter 11 of Real Presence explains our “failure to understand and appreciate the ways of knowing peculiar to the so-called unconscious mind” (p. 131). She defines the unconscious mind as the intuitive rather than the reasoning mind. The intuitive mind is “the seat of the creative imagination, the memory and the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (p. 131). Metaphor, symbol, myth, dreams, and visions are the language of the unconscious mind according to Leanne (p. 137).
As human beings partaking of the reality of God in us, or incarnational reality, we receive into ourselves the higher life that is “spiritual and supernatural” (Real Presence, p. 51). The Higher (God) descends and indwells a human spirit (Lewis, Miracles, p. 115). The intuitive mind then partaking of ultimate reality – like Christ did when He walked among us – listens, obeys, and collaborates with the Holy Spirit.
The Green Lady in Perelandra illustrates the mystical ways of knowing of the intuitive mind. When her companion Ransom asks her about her knowledge of other worlds, Maleldil (God) then sends the Green Lady pictures of Malacandra, a world that Ransom has visited (Real Presence, p. 143). She says to Ransom, “It all comes into my mind now . . . I see the big furry creatures and the white giants. . . .” (Perelandra, p. 61). Even though the Green Lady has never seen or visited this other world, she accurately describes those who inhabit it. Ransom then experiences a presence with them, and he realizes that this presence, this other person, Maleldil, whom the Green Lady speaks of and to, is the person giving her these impressions.
Practically, as we pray and listen, intuitions of the real, including ideas and impressions about how to proceed in perplexing situations come to us. Leanne writes about the many requests for help for emotional and spiritual problems she received from Christian counselors and pastors in a Winter 1982 Pastoral Care Ministries Newsletter. See (https://ministriesofpastoralcare.com/category/leannes-archives/)
Overwhelmed with the need, she prayed and rested in the Lord as He ministered to her and showed her the way forward. “. . . as I rested in Him, He began to stir up and strengthen organizational gifts within me which I have always resisted and even declared were simply not there. I knew there had to be new ways to have seminars and retreats for ministers and doctors, new ways to help laypersons get in touch with their God-given gifts and mature in them. . .”
Finally, a “wonderfully clear picture of what to do appeared.” The plan, birthed in prayer and intuitive listening, was to hold five-day retreats annually in several locations in the United States. The plan led to the formation of Pastoral Care Ministries, a worldwide ministry that blessed thousands.
Leanne explains how some earnest Christians are afraid when attempting to listen to God. They invariably exclaim, “Oh, but I am so afraid it would be just me speaking!” (Listening Prayer, p. 159). Although this is a valid caution, we can sometimes be so afraid that we forget we are one with Christ and that He comes to us through our “thoughts, imaginations, dreams, and visions.”
Encouraging us to listen to God, Leanne writes that we can begin to discern the difference between the knowledge we already have and the fresh word God speaks to us. Rather than overanalyzing the word we receive, we can wait a few days, reread it, and then be able to discern whether or not it is from our knowledge or that fresh word God is speaking to us.
Others, lacking an understanding of incarnational reality (Christ within us), believe that “the created mind and heart” could “not contain or convey the Lord or His Presence” (Listening Prayer, p. 157). Such a lack of incarnational understanding leads us to assume “that divine and human action exclude one another like the actions of two fellow-creatures so that ‘God did this’ and “‘I did this’ cannot both be true of the same act in the sense that each contributed a share” (Letters from Malcolm, p. 50).
Both fear of listening to God and hearing the word that He is sending, as well as the lack of understanding of incarnational reality, can hinder us in our attempts to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. However, knowing more about how God speaks will help us to gain confidence in listening to Him.
Chapter 12 (“How God Speaks to His Children”) of Listening Prayer by Leanne describes a number of ways that we receive God’s messages. Many times “words or pictures are seen or impressed on our thoughts.” These whispers of the Holy Spirit come as God indwells and empowers the church through incarnational reality.
Incarnational Reality and the Sacraments
“It is religion itself – prayer and sacrament and repentance and adoration – which i s here in the long-run, our sole avenue to the real.”
“Dogma and the Universe,” God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis
Both Lewis and Leanne recognized that the sacraments, such as Holy Communion and baptism, are the avenues to the real. As Leanne writes, the sacraments “were for [Lewis] not mere symbols of union but means by which the Real Presence and the very life of Christ are channeled to man” (Real Presence, p. 35).
“An incarnational view of reality,” Leanne writes in an unpublished paper The Sacraments and Their Relationship to the Holy Spirit, “understands that spirit indwells matter” just as Mary, “a created being and therefore ‘matter’ was incarnate of the Son of God” (p. 3). We are incarnate of Christ by the Holy Spirit, and the elements of the Eucharist, although matter, are incarnate of the Real Presence. To receive Communion then is to encounter the Real Presence.
Christ’s presence, His incarnational reality, comes to touch and heal us through the Eucharist and other sacraments. I have experienced, as have many others, an infusion or infilling of His Holy Spirit that strengthens and heals as I receive the Eucharist. As Lewis writes, “Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. . . . Here is big medicine and strong magic” (Letters to Malcolm, p. 103). Lewis, in the same passage, comments about how the Eucharistic bread and wine are such an odd symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ; yet his own heart as well as all of Christendom declare that the bread and wine are “uniquely important.” Lewis’s heart, open to the Holy Spirit, embraces the incarnational reality present in the Eucharist.
Similarly, Leanne writes about J. Rodman Williams, a Presbyterian theologian and pastor who had always wanted to believe that Christ was present at the Eucharist, but “as far as his own experience . . . he acknowledges that the Real Presence remained for him vague and uncertain” (The Sacraments and Their Relationship to the Holy Spirit, p. 32). Williams realizes the problem is primarily not of faith, but one of being open to God’s Spirit, and he writes about the changes brought about by his opening to God’s Holy Spirit.
How this has changed: The Holy Spirit has acted as a vitalizing agent making the Real Presence real. For it is the Spirit who opens the eyes to what is unclear, and brings about a living fellowship. This, then, is what “spiritual presence must mean” namely, Christ’s presence through the Spirit! . . . the primary problem is not faith . . . but our not being open through the Holy spirit’s activity. When at last the Spirit broke through, the presence of Christ became a reality in experience – and this makes all the difference in the world! (The Era of the Spirit, pp. 44-45).
Commenting on the different theories about the act of Holy Communion, such as whether or not the elements are “mere bread and mere wine,” used symbolically to remind him of the death of Christ, Lewis concludes that the different theories or explanations leave “the mystery for [Lewis] still a mystery” (Letters to Malcolm, p. 102). However, he believes that ultimate reality or incarnational reality is experienced during the act of Holy Communion and that the veil between the divine and material worlds “is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation” (Letters to Malcolm, p. 102).
The Eucharist is not the only sacrament where we encounter the Real Presence. The sacrament of baptism is often infused with incarnational reality. Agnes Sanford noted that physical healing often occurs during infant baptisms (The Healing Light, pp. 92-93). Leanne worked with Episcopal rector Fr. Richard Winkler of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wheaton, who was often called to the local hospital to baptize babies who were dying. Frequently, the baby was healed as Fr. Winkler baptized it (Heaven’s Calling, p. 148).
The sacraments then are our avenues to the real or to Ultimate Reality as the sacraments are also incarnate of the Real Presence. The Real Presence touches our hearts and strengthens us through the sacraments. As we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, He mediates the Real Presence to us, inviting us to partake in the great mystery of divine realities.
Living in incarnational reality is an exciting and adventurous journey. It is also a journey of surrender and obedience as we yield to the Holy Spirit. Christ lives in us and radiates through us to touch and bless His world through our relationship with Him, through forgiveness, through our transformation into the image and likeness of God, through holiness, through our intuitive minds illuminated by incarnational reality and through the sacraments.
May we live in incarnational reality and let God’s image shine through us as Eastern Orthodox bishop Nikolai Velimirovich writes in The Faith of Chosen People (p. 45): “Let your souls arise, you who are filled with the grace of Christ! Let the image of God within you shine.”
Mackay, John, A. (1970). Christian Reality and Appearance. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press.
—-. (1941). A Preface to Christian Theology. New York: Macmillan.
McGrath, Alister E. (2006). Incarnation (Truth and the Christian Imagination). Minneapolis: First Fortress Press.
Payne, Leanne. (1973). The Sacraments and Their Relationship to the Holy Spirit: An Exploration (Unpublished paper). Wheaton, Illinois: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections.
—-. (1973). Incarnational Reality: A Study of the Holy Spirit in Man (Unpublished paper). Wheaton, Illinois: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections.
Velimirovich, Nikolai. (1999). The Faith of Chosen People: A Treasury of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality, Volume 2. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Williams, J. Rodman. (1971). The Era of the Spirit. Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International.
“Edward Burne-Jones – Nativity – IMG 0732” by Edward Burne-Jones – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Burne-Jones_-_Nativity_-_IMG_0732.jpg#/media/File:Edward_Burne-Jones_-_Nativity_-_IMG_0732.jpg
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